Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by English Nature (PGP 19)



  1.1  English Nature is the statutory body that champions the conservation and enhancement of the wildlife and natural features of England. We work for wildlife in partnership with others by:

    advising—Government, other agencies, local authorities, interest groups, business, communities, individuals on nature conservation in England;

    regulating—activities affecting the special nature conservation sites in England;

    enabling—others to manage land for nature conservation, through grants, projects and information;

    advocating—nature conservation for all and biodiversity as a key test of sustainable development.

  1.2  We have statutory responsibilities for nationally-important nature conservation sites: Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the most important of which are managed as National Nature Reserves.

  1.3  Through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, English Nature works with sister organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to advise Government on UK and international nature conservation issues.


  2.1  The planning system is a key means through which Government can ensure its objectives for sustainable development and its commitments to nature conservation are met.

  2.2  English Nature is concerned that the objective of sustainable development is not a central theme of the Green Paper. This as a fundamental flaw and English Nature wishes to see legislation arising from the consultation which makes the objective of securing sustainable development a statutory purpose of the planning system.

  2.3  English Nature recognises the need for reform and that this is partly to improve the operation of the system, to make it run more efficiently and to better engage with, and meet the needs of, the community. The desire for a speedier system must not be at the expense of a sustainable, long-term perspective.

  2.4  The Green Paper fails to promote a national land-use strategy. English Nature believes this is essential to reconcile competing regional economic agendas and to provide an integrated framework for national infrastructure decisions. It would provide a context for protecting our national biodiversity, habitats and landscapes and assessing their varying capacity to accommodate development.

  2.5  The following points summarise English Nature's main concerns relating to the Planning Green Paper:

    —  securing sustainable development must be made the statutory purpose and objective of the planning system;

    —  a national land-use strategy is needed to provide the sustainable spatial context for regional planning and key infrastructure decisions;

    —  Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) and Local Development Frameworks (LDF) must guarantee a sustainable development basis for land-use decisions;

    —  the system must be adequately resourced at all levels with the skills and information necessary for effective and good planning to occur;

    —  the planning system should accord biodiversity, as a key indicator of sustainable development, appropriate status with an up-to-date national policy statement;

  2.6  The remainder of this evidence will focus on the points identified as of particular interest to the Committee.


  3.1  English Nature welcomes the Green Paper's commitment to retain a plan-led system. The current system provides a high level of certainty to its users and this is its key strength. We are concerned that the Green Paper proposals should not dilute this.

  3.2  Another strength is that the current system provides strategic policy at a democratically accountable level, either through Part one of the Unitary Development Plan or the County Structure Plan, which is close to the community. The proposals in the Green Paper replace this with statutory regional planning which is remote from the community and leave a wide gap between it and the proposed Local Development Frameworks.

  3.3  The principal deficiency with the present system is the length of time it takes to prepare and adopt a development plan. The proposals address this in two ways. Firstly, by proposing that development plans should be less complex by removing the two-tier arrangements and encouraging less comprehensive land-use allocation and the greater use of criteria-based policies. Secondly, the Green Paper advocates a faster alternative to the adversarial inquiry process for adopting local plans.

  3.4  There are disadvantages in development plans being too amenable to quick change and the loss of certainty which will result. English Nature is concerned over the proposed Action Area mechanism facilitating ad hoc development opportunities which might be politically attractive in the short-term but unsustainable in the long-term.

  3.5  The proposed annual review of Action Plans does not strike the happy medium between certainty and flexibility. There is the added danger that if updated on an ad hoc basis the Action Plans would become out of step with one another and with the LDF Core Policies. This could lead to greater complexity than with the present system.

  3.6  English Nature welcomes the proposals to reduce the adversarial content of inquiries. There is indeed more scope for the use of inquisitorial informal hearings and round-table discussions which should not only speed up the process but also be more inclusive.

  3.7  LDF Core Policies must guarantee sustainable development and harness the scope of Action Plans. Criteria-based policies, where nationally applicable, could be disseminated through Government advice to save time. Map-based allocations should apply to all protected wildlife and landscape designations.

  3.8  English Nature sees topic-based Action Plans as a potentially effective way of promoting local Biodiversity Action Plans and Regulation 37 of the Habitat Regulations—both of which are poorly addressed by the present system.

  3.9  English Nature also welcomes the proposal that LDFs link closely with Community Strategies. This will also help drive initiatives such as local Biodiversity Action Plans (BAP) and Local Agenda 21.


  4.1  Government must provide guidance which ensures that the Regional Planning Bodies (RPB), through Regional Spatial Strategies, cement in place a sustainable development framework. This must overarch the Regional Economic Strategy and integrate it with environmental and social objectives.

  4.2  The constitutional arrangements for the Regional Planning Bodies must allow for a strong voice for environmental interest groups and the planning process must be provided with adequate expert staff to support sustainability and biodiversity.

  4.3  The Green Paper underplays the role of sub-regional strategies (SRSs) which should not just be about accommodating development but also provide a vehicle for environmental management at a Natural Area level. Spatial planning at this level should develop this environmental remit to address regional biodiversity and other issues that span the County framework, eg coastal planning.


  5.1  English Nature is very concerned over the proposals for Parliament to approve major infrastructure proposals. A decision on a major project following a whipped vote in Parliament would be less independent than that of a planning inspector making a recommendation direct to the Secretary of State.

  5.2  In our response to the Green Paper we consider that not only should RSS and National Policy Statements for Major Infrastructure be in place before this new process can begin but also that there should also be a national land-use strategy. We are concerned that projects of such significance should not emerge ad hoc but only through a process of national spatial planning.

  5.3  English Nature acknowledges that the days of the four-year public inquiry must be numbered. Our concerns centre round the proposal that only Parliament would decide on the principle, need and location of the development, with public local inquiries being limited to local details of the scheme. Whilst scrutiny by a Parliamentary Select Committee taking evidence in person from selected parties would be better than nothing, we consider this to be no substitute for a hearing before an independent inspector or panel.

  5.4  One solution would be for an independent Major Infrastructure Commission to be set up to scrutinise the proposals selected by the Secretary of State and provide expert assessment of the environmental evidence and consider questions of need and alternatives. English Nature would stress the need for this to address fully the requirements of the Habitats Regulations when these apply.

  5.5  The role of such an independent Commission is considered critical in providing an expert and objective recommendation to Parliament. How the consultation procedure operates will require further thought and Government will need to make sure this is complies with the Human Rights Act. The evidence should be heard through an inquisitorial hearing rather than replicating the adversarial inquiry process. The latter would be too time consuming and favour the better-resourced parties.

  5.6  The list of major projects within Annex C of the Major Infrastructure Projects consultation document is too long and should be as closely defined as possible.


  6.1  English Nature would strongly oppose Business Planning Zones (BPZ) which included land with national or local nature conservation, heritage or landscape designations. It is difficult to imagine what "low-impact" uses would qualify for such zones. If the intention is to encourage "fast-moving" and high-technology business, then these always have social and environmental impacts. For example, employees require housing, and in regions where there is a housing shortage or prices are high, there will be a consequential impact on housing demand. Also, such business are significant road traffic generators, especially in respect of their employees, so there will be traffic impacts.

  6.2  A particular disadvantage of BPZs would be the inability of local planning authorities to attach planning conditions or to negotiate planning obligations (or levy tariffs, see below) to developments that, by virtue of the BPZ, would not require planning permission.


  7.1  English Nature welcomes the proposed widening of the application of planning obligations, in respect both of their extension to developments other than housing and also of the dilution of the necessity and direct relevance tests. It is right that all developments (with defined exceptions) should contribute towards wider social and environmental impacts and community benefits. The introduction of standard tariffs, however, should not decouple proposed developments from their direct impacts. Otherwise the true cost of a particular development could be unduly inflated or underestimated.

  7.2  Sustainable development cannot be "bolted on" afterwards by means of a planning obligation. Every planning decision should be sustainable in the first instance and planning obligations should subsequently be applied only to address the environmental issues that arise and provide a mechanism for harnessing community benefits.

  7.3  Planning obligations must retain their existing role of providing the legal means of securing environmental mitigation, such as management agreements, in addition to the tariff element.

  7.4  Through clear Government advice the LDFs should ensure that the tariff payments are not dominated by affordable housing but that appropriate sums are apportioned for other community benefits, including nature conservation. English Nature sees this as a key means of delivering nature conservation outcomes, such as addressing local BAP targets and providing the environmental management required under Regulation 37 of the Habitats Regulations.


  8.1  English Nature is particularly concerned by the suggested replacement of outline planning consent for larger developments with a masterplan certificate. We support the principle of masterplanning for major developments, but a masterplan certificate, not actually being a permission, would appear not to require an Environmental Statement, yet it is only with the analysis of such a Statement that the true impacts—and therefore the acceptability—of the proposal can be judged. The implications of the proposed masterplan certificate have not been fully thought through.

  8.2  The tension between a faster planning system and the principle of greater community involvement is not actually resolved by the Green Paper. Adequate resources are needed for this, or the quality of planning is sacrificed for speed for its own sake. Even business has stated that it often prefers certainty to speed.

  8.3  We have already noted above that we fear that the Green Paper's proposals would provide less certainty than the existing development plan system. If plans or frameworks are in a constant state of flux, then that certainty is eroded. A balance has to be struck between a reasonable level of responsiveness to changing circumstances and the certainty provided by a stable development plan.

  8.4  It is absolutely essential that English Nature retains its statutory consultee status in order to help Government meet its obligations and targets for nature conservation through the planning system. Any reduction in the number of statutory consultees should be avoided, although we welcome measures to encourage them to make a timely response.


  9.1  We support the changes made to the planning process to help deliver good quality sustainable development within towns and cities in order to support the urban renaissance. This needs to be built on strong environmental principles, and the conservation of biodiversity and environmental protection (eg through the application of Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems). These are essential elements that we feel only clear and strong planning guidance can effectively deliver. We therefore would suggest that certainty is required here as elsewhere, for both developers, LPAs, and local communities, and that the model of Action Plans could be useful for areas identified for regeneration, underpinned by a rigorous environmental impact assessment. The proposed BPZs may unleash too much uncertainty, unless a similar environmental rigour is placed upon them.

  9.2  PPG3 and the subsequent best practice guidance—By Design—can help encourage the right decisions to be made in respect of new housing location and site design. However, the focus of new development on previously-developed land—whilst laudable in principle—could bring about the loss of public open space and areas of biodiversity interest in many urban areas. LDFs or other frameworks must ensure that environmental protection and the provision of green space are part and parcel of regeneration proposals, not an afterthought.

Environmental Impacts Team

English Nature

15 March 2002

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